Teaching Students Learning Skills

As I work with school leadership teams and PLC’s establishing plans to reach student learning goals, we often explore what student behaviors are needed for students to learn or master a standard. More and more I believe that identifying the necessary learning skills connected to a desired outcome may be the most challenging part of teaching. Knowing the student behaviors, teachers can then design tasks that require the student behaviors. Sometimes students don’t have the necessary learning behaviors so the skills must be taught first before they can be applied to learn the new skills or understanding.

An article by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo in the September 2013 Kappan (Habits Improve Classroom Discussions) provides a great example. He describes a second grade teacher who has students learn with literacy discussions…. but first she has to teach the habits of discussion.

“To teach the habits of discussion, teachers must break them into pieces small enough that students can practice them in isolation, master them, and then build more habits on top of them.”

 The teacher featured in the article identified 13 skills of discussion that she teaches to her second grade students.  (Example: speak audibly, praise your peers, come prepared in writing, etc.)

“For two or three weeks after teaching the habit, she verbally reminds students to use it every time they don’t, accompanying her reminder with a nonverbal hand signal. Then for the rest of the year she uses the nonverbal signal alone.”

The skills that students learn in this classroom will be used in many future learning opportunities.

Annie Murphy Paul writes in her blog that teaching students good learning strategies would ensure that they know how to acquire new knowledge, which leads to improved learning outcomes:

“Students who use appropriate strategies to understand and remember what they read, such as underlining important parts of the texts or discussing what they read with other people, perform at least 73 points higher in the PISA assessment—that is, one full proficiency level or nearly two full school years—than students who use these strategies the least.”  

In an article in the American Educator,   John Dunlosky reports that students use strategies to study that are not the most effective…especially if students want to retain learning beyond passing the exam.

One reason that he suggests is that curricula are developed highlighting the content teachers are to teach and not on training students how to effectively acquire it. Emphasis is on what students need to learn and little attention to how they should go about learning it.

Dunlosky’s article reviews 10 studying/learning strategies.  The top two for effectiveness were practice testing and distributed practice.

Improving learning across time has payoffs to learning.  When in a practice test a student recalls the correct information there is a positive impact on memory. When a student is unable to get the correct response she now knows where to focus the next studying energy. Practice tests, as an instructional strategy, suggest a consideration for standards –based grading where final test results outweigh any grades recorded early in the learning process.

The second highly effective strategy is distributed practice. Mass practice gives a sense of quick progress versus the slower approach of distributed. Research strongly indicates that the fall off from mass practice can be severe. Distrusted practice tends to produce lasting learning and quick relearning when necessary. Teachers need to assist students in mapping out a study plan, how many sessions are needed, when those sessions will take place and what they should practice in each session. Just like the second grade teacher’s hand signals this assistance to students makes teachers “learning coaches.”

I’d strongly recommend that upper elementary and secondary teachers consider reviewing Dunlosky’s article with your students. Engage them in examining current study practices and experimenting with others. Consider instructional changes you might make to support these how to learn strategies.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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